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Squeezing Viagra into tight Montgomery County budget

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Budget season 2011 is ugly.

At conference tables across the land, numbers are being crunched and the politics of who and what can be tossed overboard are being agonized over.

Homeless families? Out.

Metro riders? Squeezed.

Library hours? Cut.

School language programs? Hasta la vista.

Rape victim counselors? Goodbye.

Viagra for county employees? Whoa. Hold it right there, budget whittlers.

In Montgomery County, the slash-and-burn cuts to close a $1 billion budget gap were painful and plentiful. But when County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) suggested nixing Viagra benefits for county employees, as The Post’s Michael Laris reported in March, there was a cacophony of outrage.

The employees demanded their little blue pills. The taxpayers couldn’t believe they were helping to pay for them.

And the rancor — and raunch — continued right up to the moment the $4.37 billion budget was passed this week.

“It’s a slippery slope when you start getting very specific about particular things,” said County Councilman Craig Rice (D-Germantown), who voted Wednesday to put a modified Viagra benefit back into the budget, despite a flood of calls from constituents telling him otherwise.

Once you consider yanking Viagra entirely, you’ve got to look at fertility drugs and birth control, Rice posited.

As it turns out, subsidized Viagra is a pretty regular benefit for most government employees across the region.

“Yes, Viagra is included in the Fairfax County health plans,” county spokeswoman Merni Fitzgerald told me when I asked. Same goes for government employees just about everywhere else, Rice told me.

So Montgomery County schools, which absorbed a $25 million cut to their budget and are struggling to keep cuts from affecting classrooms, are still paying for their employees to get Viagra.

But, it turns out, the school system and the other arms of government aren’t going with the bacchanalian, unlimited-supply-of-covered-Viagra plan that Montgomery County employees enjoyed in years past. They will all have a more modest, almost Victorian, six pills per month.

Limited lovin’, which will cut the county’s “lifestyle drug” expenditures by about half.

This is progress, no?

“I can’t believe they did it!” Iris Mersky declared when I told her that the county put the Viagra back into the budget.

Mersky is a social worker for the county. For more than two decades, she’s been one of a small staff of experts who help victims of crime put their lives back together.

She’ll know next week where she ranks in relation to Viagra. Her job, which costs the county about $70,000 a year, is on the chopping block.

I asked her who is going to lose out if she and half of her staff at the county’s Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program get axed. She began to describe her caseload: “Three mothers — all of whom are professionals — whose children were murdered by their fathers; the grandmother of a young adult killed in his workplace; a woman whose fiance was murdered while he was making a delivery.”

“In Montgomery County?” I asked, shocked at the horror show of human sorrow.

“Yes,” she said, then continued: “An elderly man robbed, tied up in his apartment, left for dead for two days; someone whose daughter was murdered. . . .

But why should the county be paying to help these folks? It’s an affluent place. Aren’t the citizens stable and functioning enough to afford trauma counseling?

“You walk into our group, and it does looks like a PTA meeting. It’s good citizens, good people who never had any experience with trauma,” Mersky said.

But the fact is, many of the local therapists who groom and prune the mental ills of the middle class simply don’t have the experience to help a mother recover from seeing a child murdered.

Mersky will be fine if she gets laid off, she said. She’s had other interviews and has a job offer on the table. But she’s worried about the gap in services if her department gets gutted.

“I believe in fiscal responsibility. I practice it. My family practices it. I understand the need for that,” she said. “But it needs to be done with forethought. Why not come to us and say, ‘Cut 10 percent’? Or ask us to cut some of our benefits? Our benefits are wonderful. They’re generous.”

And ultimately, that’s where most of the cuts were made, to the benefits and salaries of county employees. More working folks will have to do with less, including settling for a mere six pills a month.

To taxpayers, this still sounds like a dispatch from Absurdistan.

Looks like no one is going to be satisfied.

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